Leaders from Utah and beyond are paying tribute to the WWII pilot legendarily known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber,” who died Thursday at 101, hailing the Utah veteran as war hero and dedicated humanitarian whose inspired service acts as a reminder of the country’s proudest qualities.

Gail Halvorsen earned the nickname as a cargo pilot flying over a divided Germany in the years following the war, airdropping supplies to the impoverished people of East Berlin. But the Utah native was determined to deliver more than basic necessities, and without his superiors’ knowledge he began to parachute bags of candy into the Soviet administered streets, aiming to bolster hopes of the youth and remind the downtrodden that life was still sweet.

His path began in 1920 in the small Utah town of Garland, where he farmed sugar beets. In 1940 the 19-year-old Halvorsen won a Federal Aviation Administration scholarship to study as a pilot, preparing him for a life as an aviator with the Army Air Corps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor when he was 21.

The candy airlifts were the first acts of what became a life full of humanitarian work.

“From Garland, Utah, to the skies over Berlin, ‘Candy Bomber’ Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen epitomized the defining characteristics of the Greatest Generation,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said on Twitter. “May he ever remind us that hope always exists, even in our darkest hour. Rest in peace to one of the world’s finest men.” 

In addition to the outpouring of his countrymen, Halvorsen’s legacy inspired people around the world, like German Ambassador Emily Haber who tweeted photos of herself meeting Halvorsen and said the Candy Bomber “gave hope to millions.”

The German Embassy paid tribute to his kindness and thanked him for Operation “Little Vittles.”

Gov. Spencer Cox spoke of Halvorsen during his monthly news conference Thursday, sharing anecdotes of the Air Force pilot’s patriotism to the very end.

“It was incredible to see him every time the flag came out or there was an opportunity to salute, he was in a wheelchair and he could barely get up, but he was getting up. There was no way he wasn’t going to get up and salute. Even if he couldn’t raise his hand all the way to his forehead,” said Cox, who was heartened particularly by the condolences from German nationals. “I thought it was incredibly appropriate that it was the Germans who recognized him first, and how much they love him still.”

Utah Sen. Mike Lee issued a statement memorializing Halvorsen, saying, “Few Utahns have exemplified the spirit of humanity, compassion, and community quite like Col. Gail Halvorsen. The world came to know him as the ‘Candy Bomber’ because in response to conflict and strife, he delivered morsels of cheer and light from the sky to those living in the midst of darkness below,” Lee said. “Though his time on earth has come to an end, his legacy will endure in the hearts of all those he touched and inspired.”

The U.S. Air Force also tweeted its thanks to Halvorsen for raising morale in Berlin through his candy drops and in his contributions to Operation Little Vittles, saying “Yesterday, we lost an American hero.”

Utah Rep. John Curtis tweeted, “Colonel Halvorsen brought joy to children living in deplorable conditions. His sense of humanity and kindness brightened our world and he will be deeply missed.”

Brigham Young University contributed to the outpouring, and retweeting a choice Halvorsen quote. Halvorsen served as assistant dean of student life at BYU.

The Utah Wing Civil Air Patrol, shared a link on Facebook to the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation with the message, “Fair skies and Tailwinds Good Sir! Thank you for your lifelong of dedication and excellence in service!”

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Utah Rep. Chris Stewart said Halvorsen “represented the best of America” and “inspired kindness and hope.”

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens on Twitter said, “Halvorsen is a true American hero who gave hope to millions and exemplified the very best of Utah.”

Utah Rep. Blake Moore called Halvorsen a hero who leaves behind a legacy of kindness that will endure far beyond his 101 years.

At Utah’s Hill Air Force Base, the community expressed condolence, and in statement said Halvorsen “was beloved by many and left a lasting impression on all those he came across. ... His legacy extended beyond his military service as Col. Halvorsen impacted countless lives sharing his love of learning, aviation and his principles of ‘service before self, attitude, gratitude, and that the little things add up to big things.’”

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